Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi on Life Without Sound

Cloud Nothings frontman Dylan Baldi explains the progression and purpose behind the band's most thoughtful record to date

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 12 Jan 2017
  • Cloud Nothings

Five albums deep, Dylan Baldi wonders if he might have found some perspective. Maybe. “I mean, every record kind of feels like I’ve reached ‘that’ place,” he admits. “But then I make another one, and it’s like oh… I was wrong! I didn’t do it yet.”

Since 2009, the Cleveland, Ohio band have specialised in digging deeper. Cloud Nothings began as Baldi’s solo project, dreamed up in his parents’ basement in Westlake, Ohio. After being offered a fortuitous support slot for indie heroes Real Estate, he realised he needed some help recreating his stormy, caustic songs in a live setting. Since then, Baldi’s penned intimate, introspective anthems that detail moving out and moving on from a once teenage point of view, and his songs have connected with fans the world over.

2012’s Attack on Memory marked the beginning of Cloud Nothings’ proper, full-band ambitions, while 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else wound eight furious songs into a tumultuous thirty minutes, and earned Pitchfork’s sought-after Best New Music stamp, but their 2017 follow-up Life Without Sound promises to rewrite the book on this band’s capabilities.

Taut and tense, Life Without Sound explores a world which, once greyscale, has just turned full colour. You could call it a coming of age album – except it explores that kind of revelatory self-development as a constant process, one which we’ll never quite complete. Baldi explains: “Everything – and this record in particular, I guess – revolves around figuring things out. I’m a little older and I’ve done a little more. I’ve had more time to think about what’s going on in my life and the world. It’s all the same sort of reflection, but updated. The updated, 2017 version.”

This 2017 version of Cloud Nothings has undergone many changes in the almost three years since we heard from them last, beginning with simple geography. Baldi moved back to the States after living in Paris, staying first in Ohio, trying out Massachusetts, and then finally reuniting with TJ Duke (bass) and Jayson Gerycz (drums) in Cleveland. “When you’re in the same city it’s so easy, it’s unbelievable,” Baldi says cheerfully. “I was the only one who was moving around. Everyone else was smart.”

After trying out a collaborative record with San Diego surf rock band Wavves in 2015, Cloud Nothings set to an unusually long stint of rehearsal time. “We started working on [new songs] in October 2015, but a lot of that was AWFUL. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we were hanging out and the work we got done was of questionable quality. But then we ended up practising every day for like, ten hours, in this space which smelled like paint fumes and probably killed brain cells, and we made a record…”

To emphasise the difference between this sedate writing session and the band’s usual, last-minute antics, Baldi recalls the making of Here and Nowhere Else: “So for the last record, we forced ourselves not to have too much time to make it. We were touring a lot, and then all of a sudden it was like, oh… we have studio time. But we haven’t made a record yet. We’d better do that real fast.

"Jason and I were like, ‘here’s a song, here’s another!’ and then we ran and recorded it without having really played it through. It was hectic and the record reflects that because the songs are all insanely fast. Like, 'maybe if I play fast it’ll sound good?'” He laughs. “There was a lot of horrible coffee; there was a guy whose job it was to make coffee all the time. Then we made an intern go and buy a grinder, and he quit the next day. It was kind of intense, actually. We weren’t there for long but we caused trouble.”

In further contrast, Life Without Sound was recorded over three weeks in Sonic Ranch studio, near El Paso, Texas by John Goodmanson (Los Campesinos!, Sleater-Kinney, Death Cab for Cutie, Bikini Kill) – another famous producer added to Cloud Nothings’ impressive roster, following previous records with Steve Albini and John Congleton. “I like switching!” Baldi explains. “Not because we’ve had a bad experience with anyone, but I don’t want to make the same record twice.” He describes how Goodmanson encouraged the band to spend extra time and focus working on the sound of their guitars – now bolstered by an extra pair of hands in Cloud Nothings’ newest member (and old school friend) Chris Brown. The record’s twin guitars reflect the growing complexity of the band’s songwriting, and result in truly monumental, theatrical implosions.

On a record where even the jaunty single – Modern Act – investigates emotional overspill via a hook of  ‘I am alive but all alone,’ the closing track Realize My Fate epitomises Life Without Sound’s ability to unnerve. ‘I believe in something bigger, but what I can’t articulate,’ Baldi intones over marching, ominous drums. As the song builds, so does the indescribable, all encompassing fear of a future unknown – before, in classic Cloud Nothings tradition, the song boils over into seething, frantic catharsis. “It’s an intense tune,” he agrees, exhaling. “It was actually the first song I wrote for this record. I made it when I came back from living in France: I came back and I didn’t know I wasn’t going back. It took a while for it to become a cathartic statement, rather than just a scared and sad one.”

Baldi’s clear, concise, documentational lyrics mark another change for Cloud Nothings: it’s the first time that a lyric sheet will be included within one of their albums. “In the past I really did just write them the day before I had to record something! But it took us a long time to make these songs; took a while trying to write the words too,” he says.

“So they’re not something I’m embarrassed of at all. I’m proud of the words. I feel that they mean a little more to me than any other lyrics have – they’re not exactly narrative stories, but they’re definitely more that than the past records have been. I think this time it’s pretty apparent what everything is supposed to be: it’s about finding a thing that you didn’t know was a thing, and applying that to your whole life.”

The narrative remains mysterious at times, but the idea of discovering some kind of secret key feeds through every track. ‘I find peace in the terror of the mind,’ Baldi professes, bravely, on opening song Up to the Surface, and explains this new, almost philosophical perspective with a neat chorus on Things Are Right With You: “feel right, feel lighter."

On Facebook, Baldi recently rewrote the band’s bio as “New Age” – a surprising summary of a band that’s produced many more mosh pits than meditation sessions. “Yeah, I’ve been saying that lately,” he laughs. “But for me, these songs all sort of move in the same way as the ambient stuff that I enjoy. Where everything leads to an end point that’s just a little bigger and more powerful. Every song follows a path that’s winding and weird for a while, and then at the end it hits, in a big way.” Baldi’s holistic approach is far more thunderous than, say, yoga, but this updated, regrouped Cloud Nothings is striving for a strangely similar kind of resolution.

Like many of us, Baldi grew up in a sleepy suburb with little to do for fun. After he turned sixteen and gained a driver’s licence, he would take out his parents’ car “and just drive around, you know, into farms and stuff, and listen to records.” When he visits Westlake the ritual still remains, but occasionally he test-drives the band’s most recent studio recordings, instead: “I don’t know why I do it,” he muses. “But it’s fun to see if you’re still the same person.”

Life Without Sound is released via Wichita Recordings on 27 Jan